Russia has ordered the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to halt its operations as the Kremlin tightens the screws on the opposition.

The Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday the agency was being kicked out for “attempts to influence political processes — including elections at different levels — through its distribution of grants”.

The USAID closure will affect the work of many NGOs funded by the U.S. agency, such as Golos (Voice), Russia’s main election monitoring group. Golos exposed massive vote falsification in the December parliamentary election, which sparked a wave of anti-Kremlin demonstrations giving rise to a new civic protest movement.

Golos has described the halt in USAID operations as a “heavy blow” that may disrupt its plans to monitor regional elections on October 14. Russian business is reluctant to finance such activities for fear of Kremlin reprisals.

USAID has worked in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago, spending about $2.7 billion on a variety of programmes, such as economic development, fighting infectious diseases, protecting wildlife and combating human trafficking. In recent years, however, it has shifted its focus towards promotion of democracy and human rights.

Pressure

The ban on USAID is seen as part of stepped up pressure on the opposition President Vladimir Putin mounted after reclaiming the top Kremlin job four months ago. Russia has since enacted a number of repressive laws, including one that requires any organisation receiving aid from abroad to register with the Justice Minister as “a foreign agent”.

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